The Conscious Classroom

What Is Racial Literacy? Understanding the dynamics of race

March 17, 2020 Amy Edelstein Season 1 Episode 2
The Conscious Classroom
What Is Racial Literacy? Understanding the dynamics of race
The Conscious Classroom
What Is Racial Literacy? Understanding the dynamics of race
Mar 17, 2020 Season 1 Episode 2
Amy Edelstein

Racial stress occurs every day in diverse classrooms. Tensions between students, between teachers, on the news all affect how well we connect and teach our students. In this powerful episode of The Conscious Classroom, Amy Edelstein shows how mindfulness skills can diffuse racial tension and create a classroom of openness, respect, and love.

Support the show (

Show Notes Transcript

Racial stress occurs every day in diverse classrooms. Tensions between students, between teachers, on the news all affect how well we connect and teach our students. In this powerful episode of The Conscious Classroom, Amy Edelstein shows how mindfulness skills can diffuse racial tension and create a classroom of openness, respect, and love.

Support the show (

Racial Literacy 

with Amy Edelstein



Hello and welcome to the Inner Strength monthly webcast where we’re exploring topics of relevance to educators and sharing perspectives and solutions that we draw from mindful awareness and systems thinking.


These solutions can improve your effectiveness, vitality, as well as your fulfilment and joy in your work. We all come to the teaching profession with a love of learning and a love of igniting that spark in the youth that we work with and it’s my goal and hope that I can share with you the best tools and insights from my own work as well as the leading edge of the questions that are being explored in classrooms or that should be explored in classrooms, questions that are relevant to us in the culture that we live in right now.


The topic for this month is called “What is Racial Literacy?” and as mindful educators, why is this so important for us to understand. I don’t think I need to explain to you that the issues of race and racial stress, racial tensions and racial misunderstandings are rife in our culture today and of course they play out in the classroom and they play out in the classroom at all kinds of levels. Some are more obvious and extreme and some are more hidden.


What I’ve found both in my own experience and in the experience of all of the Inner Strength instructors who go in and out of classrooms where we’ve been working with thousands of teenagers in the inner city is that many times, stress as in reactions and responses are exacerbated by some kind of racial stress, racial misunderstanding, fixed ideas and beliefs, unconscious fears and concerns.


We want to make those conscious using our practice and tools of mindful awareness, so that we understand what’s going on in ourselves, what the triggers are, how they manifest for us, and so we can respond much more skilfully to diffuse tensions around us, to support kids who may have been misunderstood and to create a more connected, caring and conscious environment in the schools that we work in or with the teens that we work with.


Let me start with a story that happened in one of my schools at the beginning of this school year. This kind of story may or may not be familiar to you in this setting in which you teach. But it’s a story that you’ve probably seen on TV or heard about or worry about as arising either in your experience or with some of the teens in your lives and it’s something that I feel illustrates a lot of the complexity that we have to work with and the reactions and the responses.


I was on the phone with one of the school coordinators from the mayor’s office talking about our first week of the Mindfulness Program at this particular high school.


We were very excited because we’ve been working for over a year to get a reset or a sanctuary room established in the school and we’ve cleared a space, painted the room, ordered new furnishings and while the Inner Strength is going to be going in with its 12-week program and some of the classrooms will also be staffing this room to help students when they need to learn the tools to self-reflect, to dial back, reactions and responses and to cultivate more care for themselves and for those around them.


As I always do, I ask the coordinator, “So how is it going? What has happened this week? What’s on everyone’s mind? Is there anything in particular that the kids are involved in or testing or unexpected school events that I should know about before going into the school?” She said, “Well, actually, yesterday there was a big incident at the school and the kids are still riled up about it.”


The police had come to that neighborhood and they had created a strong presence around the school during school hours at the later part of the day. 


Now what the kids and the faculty didn’t know was that the police had had a tip that there was a gang who was planning on coming to that area and starting a big fight, which could have meant a lot of injuries and in that neighborhood potentially even fatalities.


So the police were there and it was an elevated situation which of course the students didn’t know about. There was a young man in one of the upper grades who was on his free period and had left the school to go around the corner to the convenience store or the 7/11 to get something to eat.


Sometimes these kids have breakfast or they have first lunch, which is at 8:30 in the morning. Kind of crazy schedule and if they haven’t eaten all day, they’re hungry and they often go around the corner to grab a sandwich and go back to class.


Well, the police were there and wouldn’t allow this young man to pass and he didn’t understand why. So he started arguing with them. All he wanted to do was walk around the corner. The police would not let him pass.


The student was probably hungry, probably irritated and began talking back to the officer because he couldn’t see any reason why they were there and why they wouldn’t let him walk around.


The officer of course was there to protect the safety of the kids. The situation got a little escalated and the police – I’m not sure exactly what happened. But in some way, restrained the young man. I don’t believe they were excessively rough. But they stopped the young man and were not permitting him to either go back to the school or to pass and well, he was now being talked to and was under their jurisdiction.


A girl came out of the school who was friends with this boy and saw him being stopped by the police and was triggered and she came out and was shouting at the police to let him go and she overreacted and was so extreme in that situation that the police had to take her into their custody.


It was a situation filled with reactions, tensions, misunderstandings and an inability to deescalate a situation that was not – was the result of misunderstanding rather than the result of any bad intention on anybody’s side.


The young woman was now in much more trouble than she had ever anticipated and it was one of those things that happened in a flash and resulted in some more serious issues for that young woman’s future.


So I heard all this. I had been expecting something much different from the coordinator and there I was. How do I respond? How do I express empathy for the situation, respect for the law and the hierarchy and understanding of the triggers these teens experience and why, an ability to offer support? Maybe extend possibilities for de-escalation in the future and take in a situation which is just so very unfortunate and which seems more and more common these days as our police become more and more trained to react before thought with force and our kids are less and less able to control their outbursts and respond to situations.


This is what we’re going to talk about today. Now hearing that story, for a moment, touch base with yourself. Notice how you would respond right away. Were you angry with the teens for not being obedient? Would you have shouted or criticized them? Were you angry with the law enforcement officers for being excessively militarized and trained to react with more force than understanding?


Were you upset with the school? Did it remind you of things you’ve experienced in your own life? Notice what’s happening in your body. Are you feeling frustrated, agitated? Is your heart pounding? Are your hands clenched or sweating or do you feel blank and disinterested?


Just notice. Become aware of what your reactions are, perhaps the difference between what’s happening in your body and what your logical mind is saying about the situation.


Dr. Howard Stevenson, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, the founder of The Lion’s Story and one of the most insightful voices on racial stress, racial literacy and methods to work in the classroom, defined racial literary this way. This is a quote from one of his works.


He said, “Racial literacy is the ability to read and recast or reduce and resolve racially stressful encounters during face to face interactions.” In general, people get overwhelmed, tongue-tied and confused during racial conflicts whether perceived or actual.


They lose access to memory, stutter and feel defensive and threatened. “I,” and that’s Howard Stevenson, “train people how to better respond without overreacting or underreacting. I think this is the best place to begin addressing race-related inequities. Efforts to dismantle systemic racism through legal means are important. But they don’t help people of color cope with the emotions of racial trauma and they don’t address how people in positions of authority should manage their behavior when they feel racially threatened.”


That’s the end of his quote. What I find most valuable about his work is that he trains people to role-play whether you identify as white and are found almost always to be in a position of power and authority and privilege or whether you identify as a person of color and often find yourself at the other end racial stress, prejudice and harshness or force, which we see often in our classrooms.


I personally did a four-day in-person training in a group of 35 educators with Dr. Stevenson and his team and I can’t share how valuable it was to empower me to work more skilfully in the classroom with all the various power dynamics between teachers and students and myself as an outside provider and really help bring more care, more benefit from the depths of mindful awareness practice to these situations and really help diffuse and support all the parties involved.


I encourage everyone to connect with his work and do some of his trainings or find something similar in your area. 


What I found is that we experience more racially-stressful moments than we’re aware of, especially if we identify as white. People of color, African-American are often – and other minorities or immigrants are much more aware of racial stress from an early age.


People who are part of the dominant or more privileged cultural groups tend to not see those racially stressful moments. Often our reactions, whether they’re positive or negative, are shaped by what we’ve absorbed from the media, from the way that we were raised or from our own unexamined ideas and beliefs.


Becoming aware of how a dynamic can be tinged by some of these attitudes will help us respond with more skill and will help us be able to draw from our deeper humanity and connect or dial back fear, anger or reaction.


Because of these culturally-conditioned and hyped up responses seen in the media and also because of awareness and sensitivity to profound inequity, economically in terms of access, in terms of respect or support, we may find ourselves more or less sympathetic to one of our students.


We may always identify with the underdog and support them perhaps without finding out the facts or attitudes. We may be more harsh towards the underdog. We may bias and have beliefs and stereotypes about the young men and young women in the schools that we serve. We may preference the quiet ones. We may preference the noisy ones, the active ones. As educators or mentors of teens, we know that there are certain things that trigger us and certain things that evoke our care and softer responses.


Oftentimes when we’re in a public setting or in a classroom, our reactions are tinged often unconsciously by our culturally-absorbed attitudes about race.


Using the tools of mindful awareness, of developmental thinking, of systems, relationships, we begin to understand that our reactions are not just personal. They’re not just our own individual reactions and responses.


We can’t entirely separate the way we think and the way we respond from the way we’ve been conditioned by images in the media, in culture, by attitudes that we absorbed unconsciously from our own childhood.


Employing the tools of mindful reflection really help us become conscious so that we can transcend fixed and limited beliefs that we may not even know that we’re carrying and so that we can respond from our deeper humanity, our more evolved sense of care and our greater compassion for all of the frictions in culture and the way that we bounce off of those.


If I take the three main aspects of the Inner Strength System and what we try to inspire and apply them to racially stressful situations, you can see that through this type of work, we’re developing quite a toolkit and those three main qualities that we try to cultivate our care, calm and curiosity. How do the three primary touchstones of calm, care and curiosity help in situations like the one I described? How do we lean in and feel what’s going on in ourselves so that we can draw from our deeper humanity, so that we can respond in a way that is the most caring, the most grounded, the strongest, the straightest way to react to a situation that can diffuse or redirect or correct a situation while neither overreacting or underreacting.


Mindful awareness is an incredible tool in these charged situations right in the moment. You will want to start practicing this because we think we need more time to center and locate ourselves than we really do.


Our familiarity with mindfulness on breathing, with body scan exercises, with the awareness of physical sensation can really help ground us and provide us with a lot of useful information about how we’re actually responding.


When we become aware of gravity, when we connect with our physical responses through the breath or body, we really can start discovering where we might be more concerned, more afraid, more agitated, more confused, insecure or upset than our cognitive mind is telling us that we are.


You can practice this by remembering a situation where there was some stressful moment related to racial tensions like I described at the beginning and feel your feet as they make contact with the floor. Feel gravity pulling you into your chair. Connect immediately just with your weight on the chair or your weight against the floor.


When you can feel that anchor, that immediate touch point, then notice do you feel agitation somewhere in your body. Is your heart pounding a little faster? Are your hands clenched or sweating? Are you holding on to your elbows or rolling your shoulders in?


Use your mindful awareness to do a quick scan of your body, locating whatever sensations you’re feeling without judgment. Just ask yourself what’s happening. What sensations am I feeling and how strong are they? Your mind may be telling you that you’ve got this. It’s just a memory. You’re just thinking. You understand. You’re clear. But your body may be reacting more strongly. That’s valuable information. When you’re in one of these situations, check in with yourself before you respond. Those few seconds, it doesn’t take as long as it seems to take the way I’m explaining it. Those few seconds can really make a difference in what you were going to say and how you were going to say it.


No matter what position we’re in, in one of those moments, if it’s a strong response to stop and injustice, you want to be precise and direct, strong and clear, unequivocal in the lines that you’re drawing. 


As teachers or as providers in a classroom, oftentimes our role is by intervening or diffusing situations and when we are able to touch in to our reactions and know that our heart is pounding a little bit more, we can breathe in to our bodies, using the inhalation and the exhalation to calm our over-reactivity so we can be strong, solid, centered and clear without overreacting, being personal or expressing an extra anger that is undermining, inappropriate and ultimately ineffective.


When you take a deep breath in and out, you will notice if you’re holding your breath. When we hold our breath, we’re not oxygenating our brain. We’re not really helping the problem-solving center of our brain to respond. 


So the first step when we’re in one of these charged situations is to notice our own physical reactions using mindful awareness, non-judgmental awareness, checking in on the sensations without a storyline, without solving it. Just understanding the primal reactivity of the body and then using the breath to calm ourselves without trying to make the agitation go away but simply taking a slow inhalation, slow exhalation or just a mindful inhalation, mindful exhalation and we will be able to draw from our own – as I said, our deeper well of humanity, to respond in those situations.


So our second tool or value of care also comes into play here just as it does when we’re teaching mindfulness to teens, when we’re teaching teens how to live in a way that’s more fulfilled and fulfilling and more connected.


In a racially stressful situation, it’s the same thing. Whether it’s a policeman who’s rough with a young black teenager or if it’s a young, black teenager reacting and shouting at the policeman or whether it’s the school coordinator defending her teens against excessive roughness and racial stereotyping by the authorities or whether it’s the authorities themselves with a job to do in an inner city and reactive teens getting in the way of that job, which could potentially cause harm that the teens don’t even know about.


So many different dynamics involved. The care in that situation, whatever your story might be, is to put your attention on everyone in this scenario, without forgetting yourself. Recognize your own place in the story whether you’re hearing about it and need to respond to whoever is telling you or you’re in the middle of a situations that’s unfolding before your eyes. You need to know and locate your own reaction to it and responses as well as your own need for care and support.


We are players in our own story. We often just assume that we’re OK and disregard our needs or disregard our agitation and assume that we’re fine, especially if we’re a teacher or a mentor or a counselor or a parent. We assume that we don’t need to pay attention to ourselves and we need to tend to others. But of course we need to tend to ourselves first. As they say on the airplane, put your own oxygen mask on before you help the children who are with you and in this racially-stressful scenario and protocols, you need to tend to yourself first.


So care for yourself. What are your reactions and needs and fragilities and vulnerabilities and sensitivities and triggers? How can you be caring for everyone involved? Know that you don’t know the whole story. Know that everyone is the result of so many cultural forces shaping their reactions, so much training that may be not best serving them in that moment. So much roughness that has become part of how we respond to each other in our culture these days.


So being able to take all of that in, taking in the humanity of every individual involved, not just their roles and their uniform, their age, their behavior, whether they look together or they look hyped up. But connect with their humanity, that young girl who’s responding, protecting her friend. Yes. She shouldn’t have started shouting at the police. But yes, she also is 16 and caring about her friend and not very in control of her emotions.


When you connect with that care and again in those moments where a racially-charged situation is unfolding, it seems to go very quickly. But when we practice for identifying that care, we can really touch into that much more quickly that we imagine because it’s not just a cognitive intellectual working things out. It’s a heartfelt response. It’s a heartfelt connection with everyone else’s humanity and when we connect with that, then we’re ready to have a response that’s appropriate, ethical, strong and kind for all the parties involved.


That response then gives us strength. It gives us a sense of powerfulness because oftentimes we feel inept in those moments. But we’re always able to respond at a human level when we take in the complexity and the fragility even of those who seem tough in front of us.


We can draw through our practice of love and kindness reflections, on a reservoir of love and care that’s not limited to ourselves, that draws from that sense of goodness, that’s just inherent in the fabric of the universe. You can see how an ongoing love and kindness practice trains us for these moments. It really makes those tools and those attitudes accessible and we can draw from them quickly.


We’re going to do a love and kindness practice at the end of this to really help anchor this conversation in that sense of goodness and in our own ability to express care and to feel care and to cultivate care.


The third element that we emphasize in the Inner Strength System is curiosity and that also certainly applies to our responses in racially-stressful situations. Are we interested in the dynamics involved? Are we interested in our own responses? 


Can we stand in the shoes of each of the individuals in this scenario? What was their morning like? Where did they wake up? What might have happened? What are the pressures of their job or home life? What other responsibilities might they be shouldering?


Can we connect with them? Can we imagine what that might be like? Can we walk in their shoes for an instant? So that we can respond to them in a human way even if we need to be corrective in how we’re reacting, even if there are lines that have been crossed, that need to be responded to.


But can we understand that individual’s humanity? So that the way we correct might have a better chance of having a positive and transformative outcome.


Now after we connect with them, those individuals involved in any scenario personally, look at it culturally. What are the cultural factors in any racially-charged situation? Consider this. Who is inherently believed? Who has the power and the privilege? If you don’t know and you haven’t reflected, what can you learn about the historical backgrounds to racial dynamics in the country that you’re in, that could change how you feel, that could challenge what you believe is innate or earned? 


There are some incredible resources now that lay out historical constructions of race and privilege and they’re important to open up to, especially if we find ourselves in the middle of a school situation where kids come from all over and they’re coming with their own internalized beliefs about themselves and their culture, the culture they come from and the culture that they’ve moved into also has beliefs about them.


Very important to understand and unpack, deconstruct historically how this has come about, so that it’s not just personal. You’re not just expecting any individual to be able to transcend a momentum that has been going on for hundreds of years, if not thousands. 


The open awareness practice really helps with this. As we rest in open awareness and allow our attention to expand, creating space around any issue or thought, it allows different insights to arise. It allows for us to see issues in different relationship to each other. It allows us to move around an issue and see it from another perspective to make space for things that we didn’t already know.


When we start making space through open awareness just letting everything be, letting everything go, focusing on that infinite backdrop of the screen of awareness, focusing on infinity, stretching out in all directions, we’re able to hold new historical information and let it shake and rock our fixed beliefs. When we can expand using our open awareness practice, we can let those fixed beliefs crumble and have new, more informed understandings of how we got to where we got in culture to emerge in our inner eye.


This is a process and it’s not a process that comes about by force. It’s a process that we have to be gentle with, we have to make space for. Regardless of what our position is, whether we’ve been part of a group and culture that has been oppressed or part of a group in culture that has been privileged and responsible for that oppression.


That open awareness will enable you to have access to a field of potential and capacity and understanding and healing and to also strength. 


We often feel overwhelmed by the institutionalized structures of inequity and oppression. It’s very hard to understand how we in our own professions can do anything to dismantle that.


What we can do and is very much in our hands is dismantling the inhumanity that arises between us and another individual. We can create connections. We can create bridges. We can take responsibility for our own conditioned responses in the moment, our own conditioned prejudice, fixed beliefs, unequal attitudes and connect with another’s humanity. So that we’re building a culture that’s different between us on a day to day basis.


That’s within our hands and when we feel that we are able to make changes in the way we respond, then we know that there is movement, that we’re in a process. There’s possibility and in that possibility, you realize well, anything can happen. It can take time to change things over culture but once we start working one-on-one, we feel buoyed by that sense of optimism and possibility and potential and hope. That is so very important as teachers, mentors, parents, educators or counselors of any kind. Being able to express and embody positivity and hopefulness in the middle of a racially-charged environment is rare and essential.


When we embody that positivity and hope and optimism and connection and care, then our students absorb that from us and it enables them to find unexpected capacities for healing trauma, for optimism about their own future and that little bit of hope and that example of positivity can make all the difference to how they respond and what they believe is possible.


One to one relationships are powerful and if we can prepare through our own practice to be present, to be self-reflective, to be able to make space without judgment, and to draw from our deeper humanity, then we are able to demonstrate a small victory over a big problem and that gives everyone hope.


For the next few work days, I encourage you or challenge you to identify moments where racial stress is at play. Even in an altercation with a coworker or a student where you thought it was just personal, ask yourself if some element of the way you’re responding could be because of some racial discomfort, some internalized or habituated reaction, some justified or unjustified fear.


It may be internal. It may just be how you feel, not necessarily related to the external situation. It could be related to something you watched or observed or read or heard about that you feel overwhelmed by.


But in that situation that arises in your regular day, notice it. Pay attention to it. Begin by keeping it local and immediate. See what’s happening in your body. Use your breath and your ability to sense physical sensation and reaction. Using your tools of mindful awareness. See what’s really going on before you react.


Use your breath. Take some breaths before you respond and then respond with care towards everyone involved neither overreacting or underreacting. If you feel like you didn’t do a good job or if you feel like you did do a good job, later that day when you’re on your own, think through the different ways you could have responded. Write them down. Say those things aloud not because you’re going to use things that you’ve rehearsed but because we don’t practice to respond in challenging situations. As we know from our mindfulness practice, the more we practice, the more those tools are accessible when we need them without thinking and the same with racially-charged situations.


We want to practice. So that in the moment, we’re able to express our higher humanity, our clearer vision and our most effective way to bring people together and to dismantle structures of oppression, unfairness and harm.


If you find it hard to locate these situations on your own, then at the end of the week as an educator, just go through your week and think about your own responses in the classroom and see if you can notice that some of these may be tinged by your own discomfort around racial issues.


Some examples are being a provider and walking into a classroom and seeing a teen of color, a Latino teen or a black teen treated harshly by a white teacher. See how you feel about that.


See if you feel protective or give preferential treatment either to the well-behaved, well-educated, more affluent students or to the more poorly-behaved, poorer or immigrant students.


Having biases is a human thing. We feel more drawn or less drawn. But as a teacher, mentor or caring professional, we need to make conscious our own preferences and biases, so that we can take in the kids that we work with and love them and respond to them with care and equity.


Notice how you discipline, whether you over-discipline kids of color or under-discipline kids of color. Notice if your tone of voice changes depending on who you talk to. 


Don’t be afraid of identifying these. Having this kind of racial introspection will support you. It will give you more solid ground under your feet and it will help you feel more connected and less overwhelmed by this issue that is so fraught and so inflamed.


Using our mindful awareness practice, we want to make all of this conscious without judgment, so that we can express our higher selves and our deeper values. 


So the breath is important to help you – and the body scan to help you understand what’s happening at the time. The thought bubble or the open awareness practice is important to be able to let go of self-judgment, of reactivity to another and to create space. So you can see more clearly.


Then the love and kindness practice helps cultivate care and compassion for everyone involved, compassion for the blindness, compassion for the ignorance and the desire to remove the obscurations to clear seeing and to clear connection. 


We don’t ever want to condone or justify harshness, oppression or violence. But every individual is also caught in a system and if we can learn to have compassion for the blindness, our corrective responses will be better able to reach their heart. So there can be authentic transformation and a real connection one on one.



Cultivating Love & Kindness

Let’s prepare ourselves to close with a love and kindness practice. Take a comfortable seat with your legs uncrossed and your feet planted on the floor, your spine tall, your hands relaxed in your lap or on the table in front of you. Let your neck be soft and your head floating at the top of your neck and take some deep breaths, allowing the oxygen to spread through your body, soothing all of the cells of your body, allowing the body to excrete all of the stress, hormones and toxins that may have accumulated just addressing the issue of racial tension.


Know that your efforts to lean into this are efforts to become literate in this very challenging language, in this very challenging set of circumstances and that the way we transform is through kindness to self and kindness to other.


So let’s picture ourselves and let’s extend this wish. May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be free from harm and worry and may I experience love and kindness. 


Really send yourself that wish in your own words, sending love and kindness to yourself, softening and being able to receive your own love, your own good wishes for yourself. 


May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be free from worry and fear and may I experience love and kindness. 


Now send those same wishes to one of the teens in your life, one of the teens you teach or mentor or parent or counsel. May you be happy. May you be peaceful. May you be safe and free from harm. May you experience love and kindness. 


And now send that same wish to someone that you feel is oblivious to issues of racial stress, who reacts without care or complexity and let’s send them this wish. 


Just as I want to be happy, you also want to be happy. May you be happy. May you be free from blindness and harshness. May bad intentions not be actualized and may the donning of understanding transform your desires to good and may you experience love and kindness.


And we can bring our attention back and finish the practice there. Thank you all for your engagement and effort and care, your love of learning and your love of supporting others to transform and may you all be well.


[End of transcript]